Alfred The Great And The Last Kingdom (Part 1)

February 22, 2021

Alfred The Great And The Last Kingdom (Part 1)
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Alfred was the ruler of the Kingdom of Wessex in the 9th century. As the rest of England fell to Viking invaders he won a string of miraculous victories and pushed back the heathens.

It seemed God stood with him, but for how long?

Sources and Further Reading

The White Horse King, The Life of Alfred the great - Benjamin Merkle

Life Of King Alfred - Asser

King Alfred : burnt cakes and other legends - David Horspool


  • Who succeeded Alfred The Great
    • Alfred was succeeded by his firstborn son, Edward the Elder.
  • When did Alfred The Great die
    • Alfred died on the 26 October 899.
  • What did Alfred the great do
    • Alfred defended the English kingdom of Wessex from Viking raids in the 9th century.


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It's A rainy morning on the 4 May 878. Atop a small hill in western England known as Egbert's Stone, stands King Alfred with his wife and what's left of his council. The group stand in eerie silence as the royal standard of Wessex ripples in the wind. Alfred's unblinking gaze had not moved from the horizon since their arrival at dawn. Everyone present knew that the next few moments would decide the fate of their kingdom and of Christian England. Over the last few years, the great heathen army had pushed deeper into the heartland than ever before. One by one, each of them kingdoms Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria had fallen to the pagans. 


Wessex now stood alone.


 Alfred had commanded that each of his ealdormen were to rally at this spot, on this day, with all the fighting men they could muster. But after a crushing defeat only months ago, he wondered how many would stick to their word. His wife, Ealhswith, pulled at his hand tentatively.

“Alfred, perhaps it's time peace could-”

“Look my Lord!” shouted one of his men


Peering into the distance he saw it. the unmistakable glint of armor as one man came into view. And then another, and another. Before he knew it, the trickle of men had become a stream. Electricity shot through the king as he watched his army assembled before him. The men had not forgotten their oath.

There would be no talk of surrender.


 Gutrum and his heathens, would find no peace in Wessex, not while he still had breath. 


This is the story of Alfred the Great and the last kingdom.


Welcome to the Anthology of Heroes Podcast. In each episode, I'll be taking you through the life of an individual who left their mark on the world. Some will be heroes, others will be villains, but all of them will be interesting.


When we think of England, we usually think of the tutors of Henry VIII or Richard the Lionheart. But what if the idea of a unified English people never came to be? In this episode, I'll be taking you through the life of Alfred of Wessex, a ruler from one of the petty kingdoms of England. If you like underdog stories, you'll love this one. We'll be covering all his major battles against Viking invaders, his exile, his triumphant return, and his impact on the language that now 20% of the world speaks.

And if anyone has seen Netflix as the last kingdom, I promise he's more interesting than how he's portrayed in that.


 Let's get started.


 Alfred was born in the year 849 Ad, in the town of Wantage, near Oxford and east of London. He was the third son of King Æthelwulf, and because of this, it was unlikely he would ever sit on the throne. Alfred's father had built up the prestige of the family by ending Mercian domination in Wessex, and had defended Wessex reasonably well from the occasional Danish raids. While we don't know too much about his mother, she was said to be very religious, with a good temperament, and from a decent, noble family.


As Alfred grew up in the Wessex countryside, he got to know the geography of his future kingdom from the old Roman roads which dotted the lands to the swamps near the Bristol Channel. From a young age he was always incredibly determined and loved to learn and improve himself. A famous story from his youth goes that his mother, Osburth, one day took her three children aside and said she had a prize for one of them. She produced a small, beautifully bound book of Anglo Saxon poetry and told her children that whichever one of them could memorise it, it would be theirs. Unable to read it himself, the young Alfred found someone else to read the poems to him over and over again until he could recite them from memory and thus secure the prize. 


In spite of his love of learning, he didn't actually learn to read until he was around twelve years old, due to just how difficult it was to locate a proper teacher in the eyes of society at this time, unless you were a monk, there wasn't really a great deal of need to read. If this is surprising to you, remember that this was the period historians used to refer to as the Dark Ages.


When the Roman Empire left the British Isles, lots of technological advancements went with them, from the art of warfare to irrigation. Technology had regressed. I'll be posting some Dark Age art on our instagram. It's quite bizarre. The perspective is just very wonky and the people look all apathetic and bloated. Especially poor old baby Jesus, who features prominently and usually looks like a shrunken old man. 


But summarised: as long as a child loved the Lord, could shoot straight and was popular with his ealdormen, this was usually enough. By the way, ealdormen is a Saxon term for lieutenants or local lords.


Even though the Roman Empire had gone, it had well and truly left its mark on England, most prominently its religion. Just like today, Rome was still the figurehead of the Church, and many kings took pilgrimages to the Queen of Cities. Alfred himself took part in the journey, twice, in fact. Asser, Alfred's bishop and our primary source for this episode, tells us:

“In the same year Aethelwulf [Alfreds father] went to Rome with much honour; and taking with him his son, the aforesaid king Alfred, for a second journey thither, because he loved him more than his other sons”


Aethelwulf  seemed to really make it rain in Rome, splashing out on fancy gifts to the Pope and to commenters like Saxon pottery, jewels, weaponry and straight up cash. To him, loyalty and generosity were intertwined, and this left a mark on young Alfred, who grew to understand that both gifts and kind words played an equal part in ensuring loyalty within men. Once the pair returned home, Aethelwulf tended to the affairs of the state, handling rebellion and legal matters, political alliances and dealing with the Danes.


Danes had been raiding England as long as anyone could remember. Usually small groups would sail across the North Sea and arrive on England's coast looking for easy plunder. These were not warriors, so to speak, but farmers or craftsmen with time to kill, no pun intended. Between harvests and raiding “going Viking” is probably what we call a side hustle. It started with monasteries that were usually well stocked with treasure and separated from urban centres. Unsurprisingly, the monks did not put up too much of a fight and were killed indiscriminately. Whatever treasure was found in the church was carted off back to Norway, Sweden or Denmark. If any relief force was sent, all they would find is a burnt out church in a pile of corpses.


And once these men arrived home back in Scandinavia, the lucrative rewards of the raid would have made their friends envious. 


“Hey, Sven, check out this big cross I got.” 

“Nice. What's it for?”

“Dunno, but it's made of silver.”


 So on the next raid, a few more men would come along. And so it grew. helped along by the shallow hulls of the Viking longboats that could snake up the English river silently and with decent speed. Eventually, the strength of the army was so much that it could ransom a whole town. A large enough army could even besiege a capital!


And for all the effort and money that was involved in raising an army during this time, it was usually more economical to just pay them to piss off back to Scandinavia. The Saxons called this “paying the Danegeld” or Danegeld. And while this payment brought peace, in the short term, it meant you had just given your enemy more incentive to come back and more money to build ships to carry more men. TV shows seemed to portray the Danes in a certain way, but it's worth noting that they were not better than the Saxons in fighting. They didn't have high quality weapons or better battlefield tactics. They bled just like the English did, but they were cunning.


They timed their arrival well when a kingdom was at its worst and not capable of producing a full standing army. Despite this, Æthelwulf’s reign had been fairly free of conflicts with them, and this became sort of a self fulfilling prophecy.

The Danes stayed away from Wessex because they had a reputation of fighting back. In fact, the first recorded naval battle in English history took place under his rule, when he drove the Danes off near Kent, even managing to capture a few of their famous longships.

When Alfred was around about 13, his father, Æthelwulf, passed away. His older brother, Æthelred , became the new king of Wessex. The two were close friends, and even though Æthelred had two sons, it was formally agreed that Alfred would succeed him as king. It's not clear why, but this may have been a prudent move to ensure a stable government was maintained if Æthelred did fall in battle.


Bishop Asser has this to say about it:

“As he advanced through the years of infancy and youth, he appeared more comely in person than his brothers, as in countenance, speech, and manners he was more pleasing than they.”


Whatever the reason, it was a good choice. These were uncertain times, and out the road faced challenges that his father never had to. By the time he had ascended to the throne, there was a worrying change in the usual raid and dash game, the Northmen were not leaving…


 In the year 865, a few Viking chiefs pulled their strengths together in what would be referred to as the Saxons as the Great Heathen Army. And great it was! The number is heavily debated, with minimum estimates sitting at around 1,000, ranging up to around about 4,000 or 5,000. If you're expecting more, remember, this is not the army of Denmark against the army of England. These are disunited kingdom's pooling resources. You ever tried to organise three mates to meet at the pub at the one time? Enough said.


According to legend, the Great Heathen Army was led by the three sons of the legendary figure Ragnar Lodbrok, who may or may not have actually existed. According to one of the tales, Ragnar was captured while raiding Northumbria and its king had him thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes. As the snakes sunk their fangs into him, he cried “out how the little pigs would grunt if they knew what was happening to the old boar!” And grunt they did. You'd be hard pressed to find a snake in England, let alone fill a pit with them, but who knows.


Anyway, Ragnar's three little pigs decided to avenge the old boar, so they landed in Northumbria. After holding up the King of East Anglia for horses and booty, they headed north and before long, they had taken York. From the getgo, it was clear they had no plans of leaving, and soon York was the new capital of a region under Danish law, which soon became known as Danelaw. From their new foothold, the Danes could launch attacks much more frequently.


[And instead of dragging Loot all the way home to Denmark, they just took it back to York, where they had installed a puppet Saxon king who would do what he was told. The very next year, they attacked the kingdom of Mercia, where the royal family had blood ties to Alfred's family. King Æthelred  and Alfred immediately answered the call for help. But the Northman refused to give battle and eventually King Burgred of Mercia was forced to pay the Dangeld.


With a humiliating condition added in Nottingham, their capital would remain part of Danelaw. The very next year, the Danes swung back towards East Anglia. Æthelred and Alfred jumped to its defense. But it was very difficult to summon an ready, an army with so little notice. The brothers smaller force met the Danes at Reading, but were defeated and trudged back to Wessex, leaving East Anglia to its fate. According to legend, its king, Edmund, was told to renounce Christ under fear of torture, and when he was not, he was shot full of arrows. He was later martyred and made into a saint. We've got a picture of his famous but grisly death on our Instagram page. 


It had happened. Within just ten years of their landing, the godless Northman had subjugated three out of four of the kingdoms of England. 


Wessex now stood alone.


The Netflix series The Last Kingdom does a great job at symbolising the magnitude of this. In its opening credits, it shows a black map of England slowly burning as images of Viking longships and raids flash across the screen. The flames burn through the kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia, and only at the borders of Wessex do they begin to smoulder. And this is what it must have seemed like.


 How life had changed for Alfred in only a few short years. While kingdoms fell like dominoes around it, Wessex did its best to build up as many alliances as it could. It's through this that Alfred met his lifelong wife, Ealhswith. Ealhswith was a woman of noble Mercian blood, and their marriage took place just before the Danes had forced King Burgred to pay the Dangeld.


We know almost nothing about her. Historically, in Asser’s  writing, he is unusually silent about the future queen. Actually, she technically wasn't even the Queen. Wessex didn't actually have queens, due to a historical incident: 


  • The story goes that a few generations back, a mercy and woman named Eadburh had married into the Royal Wessex family. A horrible woman, she was lusty, jealous and spiteful. She poisoned all that disagreed with her.
  • But she was so liberal with her poisons that some accidentally ended up in the cup being sent to her husband, which killed him. After this, the laws of Wessex were changed to stop women inheriting titles, and the term queen was dropped after this, too, as it was considered bad luck.
  • Nice one, Eadburh . Ruined it for everyone. Someone hit up Queen Elizabeth and give her the bad news.


 Despite her lack of formal title, Alfred's marriage to Eelsworth was fruitful. With two sons and three daughters, by the time of his marriage, Alfred himself had grown into a sensitive and incredibly pious young man. Since learning to read at the age of twelve, he'd become an avid learner and spent long nights poring over the Bible, writing down his favourite psalms into a small notepad he carried with him at all times. He truly did his best to follow the teachings of the book. In fact, as hormones surged through his body in his early teen years, he was concerned that his impulses might lead him away from God's grace. 


So concerned with him that he prayed to God to make him less of a horny young man. And God obliged! Replacing his lusty desires with… hemorrhoids. 




 When the hemorrhoid's became too much, he prayed again and they disappeared. But in their place, Alfred was afflicted with a mysterious and sporadic illness that left him out of action for many parts of his life. Careful with your prayers.
God giveth and God giveth some more!


No one ever figured out the cause of this illness, but it's fair to say Alfred was quite a sickly man for the majority of his life. With his constant bouts of illness and love of scholarly pursuits, Alfred would have settled in comfortably to the life of a peacetime king. 


But as any good ruler should, he put his passions aside for the sake of his kingdom. Four days after their loss at Reading at Æthelred and Alfred tailed the Viking force, the armies met in what will be known as the Battle of Ashdown. In command of the Danes were Halfdan and Bagsec. Halfdan was one of the sons of old Ragnar Lodbrok. The others had gone elsewhere, looking for easier plunder. Finally, the Danes had given the Wessex brothers a pitch battle they wanted, but they weren't going to make it easy. Cunning as usual, the Danes set up their battle lines on higher elevation. If the Saxons wanted them, they would have to charge uphill to get them. As you probably know, the Saxons would not be looking across a battlefield at eight foot tall, berserkers with horned helmets and Gimli’s double handed axe. 


No, a standard Danishman would be armed with a long sword or hand axe, a large shield with a metal dome in the center, ideal for breaking noses and a spear for thrusting or throwing altogether. Not that different to how the Saxons were armed. Alfred and Æthelred split their forces in two. Alfred headed to the battlefield and his brother headed to Mass first.


…Doesn't really seem fair, does it?
Forming his own shield wall, Alfred slowly trudged his men uphill and dug themselves in against the Danes as the two armies slammed into each other and pushed against the other. It's fair to say Alfred was looking over his back shoulder, thinking “any time now…” But he cheered his men on and the shield wall held. But casualties began to mount on his side. One well timed spear through a tiny gap could take a man out. Alfred kept the pressure up, assuring his men that God stood with them and that these heathens were no match for them. 


But inside he knew that his men's confidence was wavering and if a single individual was to drop his shield and run, it could trigger a deadly chain reaction, collapsing the front line in seconds. 


As the smaller Saxon army began to tire, Alfred knew that he had to make a decision to either retreat or charge. He simply could not wait any longer for Æthelred. Tightening his shield wall, Alfred roared his exhausted men forward uphill, charging ahead like a wild boar. According to Asser.


As the Northman strained against the last push, it finally happened. Æthelred had finished his prayers. To Alfred's exhausted troops, it must have seemed like a literal godsend. Æthelred and his fresh men smashed against the Viking flanks. But the Danes fought on, and only when the afternoon had well and truly set in did the fight really turn. Little by little, the Danes began to flee, and, well, Asser puts it there than I ever could:

“When both armies had fought bravely and fiercely for a long while, the heathen, being unable by God’s decree to endure the onset of the Christians, the larger part of their force being slain, betook themselves to shameful flight.”


The day was won, and in the rout, many highprofile Danes were cut down, including Chief Bagsec and five of his ealdormen.

The site of the Battle of Ashdown is contested today, but a huge outline of a white horse is carved into the hillside near Oxford, where some believe the battle took place.


I drove past the site only a few months ago, and I'll be putting a picture of it on our instagram page. The victory was a cause for great celebration, but it was short lived. Due to the nature of warfare in these times, the majority of Alfred's army were really just farmers who had been recruited under a system known as a fjyrd. In order to raise an army like the one he had at Ashdown  the men needed to be told weeks in advance. And once the battle was over, they needed to head home to their farms. ASAP. In fact, in the entirety of the Saxon army, there were likely less than 100 professional soldiers.
Almost overnight, the Saxon army disappeared with men limping back to their farms, no doubt with a fancy new Danish sword or two. 


The Danes, however, were not going anywhere. Halfdan had lost a battle, true, but England was still rich and full of plunder. To the horror of Æthelred and Alfred new, fresh, men arrived in York, eager for plunder. The brilliant victory at Ashdown seemed almost for nothing, as new recruits bolstered the numbers of those who fell. While the army of Wessex withered away. Finding themselves in need of some quick cash, Halfdan and the lads headed to Mercia, where they once again held up King Burgred for some easy cash. Without an army from Wessex to assist him, he paid the Danegeld without a second thought.


Well provisioned and well rested, Halfdan led his men south, launching numerous probing attacks into Wessex. The attacks were bold, and many took place within a stone throw from the Wessex capital of Winchester. The message was clear:


The Danes owned England. Wessex, for all at once, would fall just as the other kingdoms had.

The two brothers did all they could with whatever army they had left, but they were beaten time and time again. But finally, on 22nd March 871, the Wessex army scored a lucky break. Despite being dwarfed by the Danish army, they held strong and forced the Danes into a rout. 


As months of frustration poured over the men of Wessex, the battle order was forgotten and they cut down the fleeing Danes across the battlefield. Haldan was no fool, though. Noticing the break in discipline, he brought order back to his men and reformed the lines. And from that moment on, the victory that was once so close became an utter defeat, as the Danes turned back on the men of Wessex and cut them down man by man. And after all was said and done, slopping through the muddy plains, Alfred came across the mortally wounded body of his brother Æthelred.


The festival of Easter was a sombre one. Perhaps Alfred, in his piety, thought that the holiday of rebirth would produce some improvements in Æthelred.


If he did, though, he was very mistaken. After lingering for just long enough to see the holiday through, Æthelred slipped away, leaving an incredibly heavy crown for his 23 year old brother.
For the inhabitants of Winchester, it must have looked like Judgment Day. The war with ravenous godless heathens, which once seemed so far away, was now at their very doorstep. For Alfred, too, it was a time of great soul searching. Asser tells us that in various times of his life, Alfred would sit and listen to him for hours on end, preaching and then suddenly spark up once he heard a line that moved him, insisting that the bishop wrote it down at that very instant, in his personal handbook.


With his brother's body still warm in the ground, Halfdan and his Danes were poised to strike at Winchester itself and gave Alfred the usual proposal: pay up or face us in battle. With virtually no army to speak of and at a clear crisis in his life, Alfred paid up. 


Although he probably wasn't fully aware of it, the Danes were in a bit of trouble at this time. With small scale rebellions springing up all over their recently won territory, they were stretched quite thin. It's possible that if Alfred had called their bluff, perhaps they may not have had the strength to strike at Winchester itself. Instead, he gave them exactly what they needed: more plunder to pay, more troops. Alfred's peace bought him five years, and truthfully, these were not utilised well. It may have been that he was still learning the ropes of his new position, or that he didn't know how best to direct his efforts. Whatever the case, the only real achievement that can be credited to Alfred during this time was the creation of a small navy that successfully turned around a very small Danish invasion force.


With Wessex Floundering, the Danes worked hard to quash all rebellions around England, hitting up their favourite ATM, King Burgred of Mercia, whenever they needed a bit more Dangeld.


Alfred's old nemesis, Halfdan, headed north to deal with the rebellion in Northumbria. And Guthrum, a chief who had recently arrived in England, gathered his men at the borders of Northumbria in Wessex. We've got a picture of the key players of this story on our instagram, by the way. 


Guthrum would turn out to be a more cunning foe than Halfdan and prior to facing him in battle, was probably well aware of his strengths and weaknesses. Knowing something big was coming, Alfred called his fjyrd army, but Guthrum wanted no part in it. Easily evading the Saxon army, Alfred was astounded when he learnt the Danish host had slipped right past them and had holed themselves up in Wareham near Dorset. 


They had cut right down the middle of Alfred's territory and he didn't even know it. With all haste, Alfred moved for warham, but found the Danes were not willing to budge. After an assault on the city was easily pushed back, Alfred opened negotiations, reckoning that religion and keeping an oath meant as much to the Danes as it did to him.


They exchanged hostages and Alfred and Guthrum meet face to face for the first time. If Alfred thought he had a good read of the man, he was wrong. Once again learning what he had about Norse culture, Alfred had the man swear on a holy ring, a relic associated with the worship of the Norse god Thor. Guthrum swore that he would leave Wessex peacefully and that the hostages would remain unharmed. But as soon as night fell, he cut the throats of all of them. And instead of heading north back to Mercier, he marched his army down the coast to the city of Exeter, subjugating it to the same treatment as Wareham.


The penny finally dropped for Alfred. Guthrum would not settle for plunder. 


He wanted Alfreds spot.


 He wanted to rule Wessex. 


As news reached Alfred of yet another huge Viking fleet heading to reinforce Guthrum at Exeter, it must have seemed like it was all coming to an end.  Over in Mercia and Northumbria, the Danish overlords were no longer bothering with the pretence of setting up a puppet ruler and instead just made themselves kings outright, replacing the Saxon ealdorman with loyal Danes.


Alfred undeterred, sailed his meagre fleet out to meet the Danes. If he was to die, let it be in service of his beloved Wessex rathen than rotting in a Danish jail. 


He knew he needed a miracle… and that's exactly what he got.


The English Channel has always been feared by outsiders. The rough and unpredictable currents require an in depth knowledge to navigate. The Danes were highly skilled seaman, but just like Julius Caesar 800 years back, they were caught off guard. 


A mighty storm kicked up and the Viking fleet, said to be 120 ships strong, was wrecked upon the rocky English coast. Guthrum and his men were left in a rather awkward position of having to open up negotiations with the very man they had just broken their word to. After what must have been an uncomfortable meeting, Alfred agreed to let Guthrum and his men return to their capital. 


Back in Mercia, Guthrum provided hostages while Alfred did not - 

You can't imagine there would have been many volunteers. 


If these troop movements are confusing. We've got a map of the Danish invasion routes of England during this time on our Instagram page. Go check it out.


Guthrum recovered incredibly quickly, and only a few months after a setback at Exeter, he had more than reinforced his army. Men were lured with promises of the rich spoils of Wessex, the last cherry ready to be plucked. Taking advantage once again of Alfred's devotion to the church, Guthrum and his men struck something completely unexpected. In the dead of winter, on the Christian holiday known as the 12th night, Alfred and the majority of his closest friends and advisors were at the city of Chippenham.


With almost all of Wessex celebrating the holiday, the Danish host arrived and headed straight into the city. Plunder was not the motive this time. They wanted Alfred dead and gone. The Danes slew all they came across and Alfred, once again caught completely off guard, ran for his life with only the shirt on his back, his family and a few guards. With the Danes in hot pursuit, aAfred made for the only place that he knew was safe: a swamp he remembered from his youth the marshes of Somerset. 


nd so it was that Alfred, at 30 years old, with no army, no money and no land, hid amongst the weeds and the muck in a swamp in western England. Only ten years earlier, the stories of the Dames had seemed so far away from his stately castle in Winchester. 


How had it come to this? 


Tune in next week for part two, Alfred's incredible comeback and his restoration to make England great again!.... Urgh I felt Feel dirty even saying that….


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